The Cool Trailing Spouse
Last week, we ended the traipsing-about part of our massive summer adventure, rolling up at our friends' flat in Greater London for five days in the city. We started in Athens at the end of May, wound our way across Armenia and Georgia wandering in ancient churches, enjoying gorgeous vistas and drinking succulent wine, looking up at the monumental stone edifices of Yerevan and hustling up and down the steep hills of Tbilisi old city under carved wooden balconies. Then we hopped a Tbilisi-London flight to start the British leg of our trip.
My friends are what you might call traditional expatriates, though they are not traditional people in any pejorative sense. They're both arty types, young fun liberals, far more similar to me than to the businessmen and trailing wives of Tienmu who send their children to international schools. Who can even consider affording international schools.
We had a lovely time with lovely people, both them and my in-laws, at times comparing aspects of the expat experience. This is a life not at all new to me and Brendan, but still two-years new to them. I remember well that even two years in, my life still had that new expat smell and it was interesting to trade proverbial notes.
I couldn't help but notice, though, that despite being more like us in personality, values, predilections and life goals, that their expat situation was far more like those of the Tienmu international school crowd than ours. They could afford a decent-size flat near a tube station, something two teachers most likely could never do, even with salaries adjusted to reflect the British economy. They could afford for one of them to be the 'trailing spouse' (and as always seems to happen, the trailing spouse was the wife). They could afford this and to raise a child (to be fair, in the UK one needn't worry so much about where to send a child to school).
We both knew the new expat smell, but their model was far more luxurious. It had upgrades.
I wouldn't say I was jealous - I chose my circumstances. I don't mean to criticize either: this is the opportunity life handed them and it was fair to take it as-is. If anything, it served as a lesson to be avoid drawing such thick lines between 'Us' and 'Them'. People in Their situation may very well be people like Us who just found themselves there.
That said, I do find distinctions that are worth a quick exploration. A lot of people assume 'expat' means excellent relocation package (something my friends got and I didn't, because I moved without a clear job offer - and even had I had one, nobody was going to pay my relocation costs let alone cover them generously). They often assume it means serviced flats, possibly domestic help including a driver, very high pay, being able to send their children to international schools and attending events, clubs and associations designed for networking with other expats (and almost never locals - though that is likely more common in Asia than, say, the UK). They often assume it means a trailing spouse, usually the wife, and nobody ever seems to question why it always seems to be the wife supporting her husband's career, or why more women don't get these sorts of offers to move abroad from generous employers.
That's all fine - other than pointing out the gender gap in who gets the plum offer and who is the trailing spouse, it's not a criticism. However, it seems to be the predominant view Westerners have of expat life, which is why articles like this fistful of garbage are spawned. The writer of that thing only has a point if the only kind of expat is the well-paid kind who has a serviced flat and a driver, and the only kind of immigrant is the poor kind. If this is true, what am I? A well-off immigrant or a poor expat? What about those of us for whom neither term fits?
It means that all of the advice you see is geared toward a demographic of foreigners abroad I've never been in. It's all coffee mornings and no 'how to make it work as an independent woman abroad'.
Mercy in a new place
It was interesting, then, to read Janice Y.K. Lee's The Expatriates while on this trip. Yes, it deals with exactly the demographic of well-paid expats and their stay-at-home spouses that I just spent two and a half paragraphs saying I wasn't in, but it was a worthwhile read (and I recommend it) for two key reasons: one of the protagonists is more like me than the well-to-do women who make up the rest of the book, who are also portrayed very sympathetically.
Mercy, a young Korean-American Columbia graduate, moved to Hong Kong on her own, without a job in hand. She more or less makes it work, until it doesn't any more. I don't have her bad luck, but the feeling of moving to a new place with a small savings account and a suitcase and making one's way without a corporate helping hand - and working a job to make it all happen - that's my expat experience. I gather that is the experience a lot of us have, but few people seem to write about it. Its depiction of the Korean community in Hong Kong further reminds one that those who live abroad cannot be packaged up into tidy communities of (white) expats and (everyone else) immigrants. And, of course, the character of Olivia serves as a reminder that even the wealthiest expat cannot compete with a successful and well-connected local.
Swashbuckling tales of adventure and derring-do of handsome men aside, the focus on expat women, not men, in The Expatriates further reminds us that lives of women abroad are often just as interesting as those of men, if not more so.
However, it was also a reminder that, as much as we ought not to create divisions between us as expats, some cannot be ignored. I may do better than a typical cram school teacher, but I'm still an English teacher and have, despite my professional status in the field, resigned myself to forever introducing my work as "an English teacher...but a real one." That, as much as I might make more money and have a better lifestyle than the sort of fresh young blood I was in 2006 - no crappy rooftop apartments for me - I will never, as a teacher, be on the same financial level as the Tianmu set. Brendan and I will always have to do things ourselves, we won't have a company connection setting anything up for us, likely ever. I'm 36 and still a liberal artsy-fartsy night owl type, more like the fresh young blood than the greying businessmen; this is not likely to change either. Every piece of advice is geared toward them; none seems aimed at me. Most of them won't stay long. Most will never learn Chinese or integrate locally. There simply are not that many overlaps in the issues we face.
And I might not be a trailing spouse like so many expat women, but the majority of long-termers I've come to know here, who were birthed into expat life as I was, are male.
My first real arrival in Taiwan took place late at night. I dropped my bags in my cruddy-but-temporary Gongguan perch, collapsed into sleep, and woke up the next day to explore the city. I had a vague offer of a teaching job, a few thousand dollars and a backpack. I navigated work, language, finances, socializing, paperwork and visas and adjustment to a new country and culture on my own. I don't think it takes away from the experiences of more well-heeled foreigners to admit that I'm proud of this. I'm proud that I did it on my own, and that I was never a trailing spouse (I am also confident enough in myself now that, if a fantastic opportunity arose for Brendan, after all these years I finally wouldn't balk at the idea of being one for a temporary period).
Like Mercy, I had no help, and like my brand-new idol and also crush, Janet Montgomery McGovern, I had financial concerns. I had to generate an income to make it all work. I was a woman doing what most people associate with young men doing. Like them both, I'm not the typical 'Go East, Young Man', well, man.
On our last day in Tbilisi, I turned the final page of my last book for the 'intensive travel' portion of my trip: Justine Hardy's Scoop-Wallah: Life on a Delhi Daily. Although I hadn't planned it this way, my reading tour across the Caucasus was also a reading detour from books about Taiwan or books about teaching, linguistics and education into a short list of books about women living abroad.
Hardy's story also resonated with me, not only because I used to live in India, but because she too chose to return to Asia, sought out work, found it and made things happen for herself. She, like Janet McGovern, had the sort of adventure most people associate with men. She, like both me and McGovern, had to make money to stay afloat. And she, like us, had no employer helping her. She, like us, was perhaps an expat who lived like an immigrant, or maybe an immigrant who knew she couldn't stay forever. I do wonder, however, what kind of visa she was on as it was clear that her employer wasn't helping her with it, but it is extremely hard to get a visa to work legally as a foreigner in India. You certainly aren't allowed to be offered a job in India and then transfer a tourist visa to a working one (I know, because I looked into it).
Hardy describes a hardcore hustling to make her daily bread, to make a name, to make life possible in a foreign land, that I can identify with. What I peddle is different, but we're both working the same street. She has McGovern's mettle, translated to the present day and proves yet again that the stories of women abroad are not limited to managing the help, choosing between Taipei American School and Taipei European School and going to coffee mornings. That we hustle too, that we have stories too, and we all make it work.
That Hardy might have been writing soft features, but under that she's a professional journalist who simply loves India and plies her trade well. That I may be 'teaching English', but I'm also a professional educator who is days away from starting Master's in the subject at a prestigious university.
That we don't always have help. That arguably the most interesting expat in twentieth-century Taiwan was not Indiana Jones, but his mother, and she too was an English teacher.
That even the trailing spouses, who may have never thought they'd be 'trailing'.
With that in mind, during a quiet moment on the outskirts of London, I wrote a short inscription in Scoop-Wallah and, when nobody was looking, popped it into a corner of my friends' book collection. Not the husband's, although I've known him longer and we are closer, but the wife's. He might be the expat with the cushy job, but she has a story too, and under it all we may have different situations but we're not all that different.